Urinary tract infections can be quite annoying, especially when they return again and again, as they are often prone to do. They seldom become a serious condition in themselves, but they are an indicator that something is wrong in the body. They can point to immune system dysfunction, especially if they are an ongoing issue. Sometimes their treatment with antibiotics can create a whole new set of problems, as we shall see. The good news is that most cases of urinary tract infections can be prevented by some simple lifestyle changes that are actually quite simple to implement.
What is Urinary Tract Infection?
The urinary tract is composed of the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. A Urinary Tract Infection, commonly referred to as a UTI, can affect any or all of these areas. They are typically bacterial infections that begin in the lower urinary tract, composed of urethra, ureters, and bladder. UTIs are more serious when they spread to the kidneys, part of the upper urinary tract. In most cases, they are much more common in women, for reasons we will discuss below. However, they are also found in males, most often in infant boys and older men.
UTIs are a quite common disorder, especially in adult women. Approximately 50% of all women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime, and about 90% of them will experience recurrent infections. Adult women have the highest incidence of UTIs, outnumbering infections in adult men by a ratio of 50 to 1. The main reason for this is anatomical, with females having a much shorter urethra than males, thus making it much easier for bacteria to make the trip into the bladder and begin to multiply into a full blown infection. In addition, hygiene plays a role, as the female urethra is also in closer proximity to the anus and can potentially be exposed to bacteria from fecal matter.
In infants, many boys will develop UTIs (four times as many as girls), mainly due to birth defects in their urinary tract. Older males who develop prostate disorders are also at increased risk for UTIs.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of UTI?
Symptoms vary depending on the location and severity of the UTI, but general signs that indicate you may have a UTI include:
- Burning sensation upon urination.
- Butty urine
- Foul-smelling urine
- Persistent urge to urinate
- Frequent urination that produces small amounts of urine.
- Blood in the urine (hematuria)
Different types of UTIs will result in unique symptoms:
- Urethritis (inflammation of the urethra): Usually the least severe form of UTI, urethritis is associated with a burning sensation when urinating. This is often the first hint that you may have a UTI. Men can also experience a discharge from the penis in some cases.
- Cystitis (inflammation of the bladder): Common signs of cystitis include painful urination, foul-smelling urine, and lower abdominal pain or a feeling of pressure in the pelvic region.
- Pyelonephritis (kidney infection): This more serious type of UTI often forms when an existing UTI spreads from the bladder into the kidneys. It can result in a high fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, and pain in the upper back and/or flanks (side of the torso above the hip).
What Causes Urinary Tract Infections?
A brief primer on the structure of the urinary tract will help us better understand the causes of UTI. The lower part of the tract, where most infections are found, is composed of the bladder, where urine is stored until it can leave the body through the urethra. The upper tract includes the ureters and kidneys. The kidneys, one of the main filters of the body, cleanse the blood of impurities and create urine which travels through tubes called ureters that lead to the bladder.
Most UTIs that occur, especially in females, are called “ascending” infections, because bacteria in the urethra ascend or move up into the bladder. The most common type of bacteria that causes UTIs in both men and women is e. coli, commonly found in the intestinal tract and in fecal matter. About 20% of UTIs in females are caused by various forms of staph. Keeping in line with the amazing design of our bodies, the urinary tract has built in defenses that work to protect this sensitive area from infection, but certain factors make it more likely for infections to occur.
In women, these risk factors include:
- Low levels of an enzyme found in vaginal secretions called fucosyltransferase. This enzyme helps to inhibit the growth of certain vaginal bacteria.Some women naturally have lower amounts of this enzyme than others, and are therefore more susceptible to the presence of bacteria in the vagina. It can then easily spread to the urethra.
- Sexual activity with multiple partners increases the chances of introducing bacteria into the genital area. It can also irritate the urethra and make it more likely to harbor bacteria.
- Birth control methods such as the use of a diaphragm or spermicidal agents can also increase risk for UTIs.
- Compromised immune system: An immune system that is not operating up to par opens the body up to all kinds of infections, including UTIs. Certain illnesses associated with a weak immune system can result in more UTIs, including diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and lupus.
- Poor personal hygiene can introduce bacterial infections into the urinary tract.
- History of previous infections: Once you get a UTI it is quite common for them to recur. An estimated 80% of women who have had a UTI will experience one or more additional ones within 2 years.
Most UTIs in males, except for infant boys, are caused by factors that impede the flow of urine. This is often the result of kidney stones, prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate), or other conditions that can irritate the urinary tract. Additional risk factors include:
- Not being circumcised: Poor hygiene under the foreskin can lead to the accumulation of bacteria that can infect the urethra.
- Catheterization: A catheter inserted into a man’s urethra, especially for an extended period of time, significantly increases his risk for UTIs.
Are There Any Possible Complications From UTIs?
Yes, complications can occur if infections are left untreated. Kidney infections can become chronic, and have the potential to permanently damage the kidneys. UTIs during pregnancy have been linked to premature births and low birth weight in some cases. UTIs can be very damaging if they are overlooked or mistaken for another disorder. This happens most often in small children and the elderly, who often are unable to communicate the symptoms properly or in a timely manner.
How Can UTIs be Treated or Prevented?
The most common form of treatment for UTIs is with antibiotics. In fact, the use of antibiotics for treatment of UTIs and other bacterial infections has created a whole new set of problems. These germs are becoming so used to these drugs that they have developed a resistance to them in many cases. Another problem with the use of antibiotics is that once they enter the body, they fail to differentiate between the “bad” bacteria that is causing the infection, and the “good” bacteria that is useful to the body, especially in the intestinal tract. Thus, the balance of bacteria in the gut becomes skewed, and digestive problems can occur. Many useful bacteria are also eliminated in the vaginal tract, leading to recurring yeast infections. There are many beneficial strains of bacteria that are destroyed by the antibiotic along with the infectious agents.
A recent development in modern medicine involves the prescription of “daily” antibiotics to folks who have recurring UTIs in the hopes that it will prevent infections, even if one is not present at the time. This has become especially popular for children, usually girls, who have ongoing problems with UTIs. A recent study has concluded that this type of treatment does absolutely no good as far as preventing UTIs. Thinking like this only encourages blind dependence on the medical establishment and the drug companies that drive it.
There may be times when the use of an antibiotic is appropriate, but most UTIs can be treated and, most importantly, prevented, by the use of more natural means. Here are some suggestions:
- Never “hold” urine. Always urinate as soon as possible when you get the urge. This can be a big problem for young children, who often are reluctant to use the bathroom when away from home, such as in school. Holding urine only increases the chances of bacteria migrating into the urinary tract.
- Drink lots of water. Downing ample amounts of purified water every day is one of the greatest habits you can develop for your overall health, and it is probably one of the best ways to prevent UTIs as well. Water flushes your urinary tract, and makes it more difficult for bacteria to get a foothold.
- Drink cranberry juice. Cranberry juice (unsweetened) helps the urine to remain acidic, which is its natural state, and it also provides a substance called hippuric acid that naturally fights off harmful bacteria. (Note: Be careful about cranberry juice if you are taking the blood thinner warfarin. Bleeding can result).
- Limit sugar. Sugars of all kinds only tend to encourage bacterial infections. They also weaken the immune system. White sugar is the worst, but also look out for honey and sweet fruit juices.
- Avoid foods that irritate the bladder. These include coffee, alcohol, and chocolate.
- Urinate after sex. It is important for both men and women to urinate as soon as possible after sexual relations. This can cleanse the urethra of any potential bacterial agents.
- Proper hygiene. Women should always wipe from front to back after urinating or defecating. This helps to prevent the spread of germs from the anal area.
- If you do use antibiotics, be sure to take a quality probiotic supplement that will help to replenish the useful bacteria in your body.
UTIs can be, for the most part, prevented through the use of common sense and quality lifestyle choices. The good part is that these measures are not only effective against UTIs, but will boost your overall health as well. If you pursue wellness and take care of your body, you will eliminate many disorders, including UTIs, before they ever become a problem.